Lot 10
  • 10

Shaman's Mask

300,000 - 500,000 USD
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  • Wood (Alnus rubra or Cupressus nootkatensis), mineral pigments
  • Height: 10 in (25.4 cm)


Wolfgang Paalen, San Ángel and Tepoztlán, acquired in situ in 1939
Almost certainly Julius Carlebach, New York, or Ralph C. Altman, Los Angeles, acquired from the above by the early 1950s
Walter Randel, New York
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on April 15, 1987


Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, El Arte Indígena de Norteamérica, March 20 - April 20, 1945


Wolfgang Paalen, 'Totem Art', DYN, Nos. 4-5, December 1943, p. 19
Justino Fernández, Catálogo de las exposiciones de arte en 1945 : suplemento del número 14 de los anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Mexico City, 1946, p. 22, cat. no. 20 (listed)
Amy Winter, 'The Germanic Reception of Native American Art: Wolfgang Paalen as Collector, Scholar, and Artist', European Review of Native American Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992, p. 20, fig. 6 (illustration from DYN)
Dieter Schrage, ed., Wolfgang Paalen. Zwischen Surrealismus und Abstraktion, Vienna, 1993, p. 203 (in situ photograph, 1939)
Dieter Schrage, ed., Wolfgang Paalen : Retrospectiva, Mexico City, 1994, p. 181 (in situ photograph, 1939)
David W. Penny and George C. Longfish, Native American Art, New York, 1994, p. 235
Allen Wardwell, Tangible Visions: Northwest Coast Indian Shamanism and its Art, New York, 1996, p. 141, cat. no. 140
Andreas Neufert, Wolfgang Paalen. Im Inneren des Wals, Vienna and New York, 1999, p. 192 (in situ photograph, 1939)
Christian Kloyber, ed., Wolfgang Paalen's DYN: the Complete Reprint, Vienna and New York, 2000, p. 52 (illustration from DYN)
Dawn Ades, ed., The Colour of my Dreams: the Surrealist Revolution in Art, Vancouver, 2011, p. 233 (illustration from DYN)
Andreas Neufert, Auf Liebe und Tod. Das Leben des Surrealisten Wolfgang Paalen, Berlin, 2015, p. 374 (in situ photograph, 1939)

Catalogue Note

This magnificent shaman's mask is a sculpture of extraordinary rarity and quality and one of the greatest masterpieces in the Barnet Collection. It stands as both a paragon of the virtuosity of Northwest Coast artists and an embodiment of the deeply complex relationships between the natural and supernatural worlds. The mask was made for a shaman, or íxt',1 a figure who, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, played a vital a role in communicating with the realm of the supernatural. The íxt' acted as an intermediary between the spiritual and mortal realms. "He cures the sick, controls the weather, brings success in war and on the hunt, foretells the future […] reveals and overthrows the fiendish machinations of witches, and makes public demonstrations of his powers in many awe-inspiring ways. He is the most powerful figure in his own lineage."2 The ability to communicate with the realm of the unseen imbued the íxt' with power and authority. The íxt' was a figure of awesome prestige, but the respect he was accorded was tinged with a certain revulsion, for there was something to be feared in his link to the world of yéik, or spirits. A stone, a glacier, a tree, a human, an animal – all things contain a yéik, which may be generous or treacherous. To the íxt', the yéik were powerful spirit-helpers or spirit-messengers. The reputation of the íxt' rested on his success in commanding these yéik, and the more he controlled the more influential he became.3

To fulfill his role in society the íxt' required extensive paraphernalia, which included masks, rattles, animal skin garments, and carved amulets of ivory or bone. The number of items in the íxt's possession was proportional to the number of yéik under his control. Whilst most objects were the possession of the clan, this paraphernalia was the property of the íxt' alone, and was touched only by his hands and by those of his helpers. The paraphernalia was of such importance and spiritual power that when not in use, it had to be hidden somewhere where it could not harm the uninitiated, such as in a cave or hollowed tree. Masks were the most important of all the objects the íxt' possessed, for they were the only objects which represented the individual yéik. is to this class of spiritually potent objects that the Barnet mask belongs. The most powerful spirit-helpers were those that the íxt' obtained from animals, birds, or fish that he encountered. The Barnet mask represents the yéik of a bear, an exceptionally powerful yéik known to be very difficult to control. Only íxt' of particular ability and power were able to command this potentially dangerous yéik.

The power of the objects owned by the íxt' only became manifest once he used them. An íxt' might therefore decide to have his masks made by an individual who might not share his supernatural knowledge, but who possessed the ability to embody the immense presence of a great yéik in sculptural form. Whether it was made by an íxt' or another, the hand of a great artist is evident in the Barnet mask, a sculpture of absolutely startling clarity of vision and precision. Every detail of this delicate yet deeply powerful manifestation of yéik, is crisply defined, from the nostrils to the outline of the bulging cheeks. The mask abounds in subtle details: the very finely incised curving rims of the upper eyelids are repeated as arced incisions at the base of the ears, the form mirrored in turn in the smiles of the two human faces within the ears. The planes of the sculpture are never flat; even the smallest undulate, catching the light as the surfaces subtly flow between the concave and the convex. Seen from different angles, the finely modeled features appear to move of their own accord, as if possessed by life itself.

Although we do not know all the yéik possessed by the íxt' who once wore this magnificent mask, we do know that it was found with a mask depicting the yéik of a dying man,4 now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 1979.206.440; see fig. 1), and an equally ancient but eroded mask, the present location of which is unknown, that depicts the yéik of an eagle.5 These three masks were collected in southeast Alaska by the artist and influential theorist Wolfgang Paalen (see fig. 2), who travelled there in 1939. During the few months which Paalen spent on the Northwest Coast he assembled a remarkable collection, which in addition to these masks included the famous Chief Shakes house partition screen, now in the Denver Art Museum (inv. no. 1951.315). Paalen illustrated the Barnet mask and other objects collected during his stay in the special "Amerindian Issue" of his journal DYN (see fig. 3), a publication which was notable for the influence it had on the then emerging artists William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. The extraordinary caliber of the objects Paalen acquired was remarked upon by eminent specialists such as Emmons and the scholar and collector Robert Bruce Inverarity, who wrote to express his astonishment at how Paalen found "such excellent pieces […] without doubt you have gathered some of the finest examples of their kind […] how you did it at this late date is beyond my ken."6

A rare and distinctive feature of this artist's work is that rather than pointing straight ahead, the face projects subtly downward. This is evident both in the Barnet mask and its companion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a powerful yet contained movement, the downward projection of both the eyes and the snout give the Barnet mask a leer of somewhat human quality, the liveliness of which is emphasized by the wonderfully dynamic carving of the lips. The form of the snout is balanced by the alert air of the pricked ears, inside of which are two exquisitely carved faces. De Laguna notes that when such faces appear, they signify "the indwelling anthropomorphic soul (qwani)",7 whilst Sergei Kan notes that "small faces inside the ears of a bear represented this animal's unique hearing ability [...]",8 perhaps an allusion to the supernatural powers of communication which the íxt' possessed.

Steven C. Brown remarks that the style of the Barnet mask can be associated with the work of an artist who created several other great masterpieces, including the Chief Shakes house-posts, which "can be dated to at least the 1780s and probably before",9 and the "Raven at the Headwaters of Nass" hat in the Seattle Art Museum (inv. no. 91.1.125).

An early nineteenth century date at latest for the Barnet mask is supported both by these stylistic comparison the aforementioned works amongst others, as well as by references in the scholarly literature. For instance, the Barnet mask has solid eyes, an attribute which Emmons associates with the most ancient íxt' masks during his time in southeast Alaska in the 1880s.10 Equally, there is strong evidence that the masks of an íxt' were preserved for many years; Emmons records that he found masks of differing ages kept together in íxt' regalia, and notes that some "had been used by up to five generations of shamans."11 A mask of the evident antiquity of the Barnet example may, therefore, have been used by several generations, belonging, at last, to an íxt' whose powerful yéik found no person to inherit it.

The Barnet mask is one of the great masterpieces of Northwest Coast art. The power and spirit of the íxt' and his yéik are masterfully brought to life in this subtle and exquisitely modeled sculpture. The extraordinary presence of the Barnet mask is expressed best by Wolfgang Paalen, the man who rediscovered it: "Works of art are traps set for life – if the trap is well set, life is ensnared within it forever."12

For clarity we have used "shaman" in the title of this mask, but íxt' in the text, as it is the most correct term for a person who holds this spiritual position. The word "shaman" (and the archaic "medicine man") do not describe the role with great accuracy and, moreover, have certain misleading connotations. We refer to the íxt' using male pronouns in this essay as whilst an íxt' could be either a man or a woman "female practitioners were rare." Olson, Social Structure and Social Life of the Tlingit in Alaska, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967, p. 111
2 de Laguna, Under Mount Saint Elias: the History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit, Part Two, Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 7, Washington, D.C., 1972, p. 670
3 For some clarification on the difficulties of interpreting the "relationship" between íxt' and yéik see Emmons (with additions by de Laguna, ed.), The Tlingit Indians, Seattle and London, 1991, p. 377
4 The dying or dead man is a comparatively common theme within the corpus of íxt' masks
5 Illustrated in Paalen, "Totem Art", DYN, Nos. 4-5, December 1943, p. 19
6 Letter of March 20, 1944, from Inverarity to Paalen, Gordon Onslow Ford Collection and Archive, Inverness, California; cited in Winter, "The Germanic Reception of Native American Art: Wolfgang Paalen as Collector, Scholar, and Artist", European Review of Native American Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992, p. 22
7 de Laguna, ibid., p. 761; this idea can perhaps be associated with de Laguna's concept that that a yéik is the ghost of a dead person which can assume either zoomorphic or anthropomorphic shape.
8 Kan, Symbolic Immortality: the Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century, Seattle and London, 2016, p. 326, fn. 30
9 Brown, Personal Communication, April 2018
10 Emmons (with additions by de Laguna, ed.), ibid., p. 377
11 Emmons, cited in Frederica de Laguna, ibid., p. 672
12 Paalen, "Voyage sur la côte Nord-Ouest de l'Amérique", (Kloyber and Pierre, eds.), Pleine marge, No. 20 (December 1994), p. 24